Instituting Organisation: A First Note on Comradely Aesthetics

Since the financial crisis of the last decade, art’s partaking in the biopolitical apparatus of contemporary logistics has accelerated to a point of erosion. The same may be said about the global welfare system, of which its development manifests in an ever-increasing bipolar social strata. Underscored by the marriage of neoliberalism with a rising alternative right, cuts in funding of health, education and culture, in the name of ideology, have become central gamepads for populism. And although the concept of art has become a tool for symbolic politics in late colonial modernity, while critical thinking has been exchanged for fake news and sustainable living for pharmaceutics, the banal machinery of identification cannot quite target the uselessness of aesthetics: the sensible is never fully drained by the crypto-social extraction that funds (for the most part) the art market. Somehow the aesthetic encounter lasts beyond the computation of affect, but how so?

We can no longer use the adjective ‘performative’ to emphasise how essential mediation, independent on context,is for millennial artists (older generations, too), but perhaps it is worth rethinking what this tendency means beyond the appearances of design and fashion – matters that equally have evolved as part of an increasingly privatised society. Firstly, what would new institutionalism in the early 2000s have been without the Western welfare imperative – which today is so entangled with art’s speculative funding? And secondly, what if we are now facing yet another round of institutionalism, where not only social distribution is negotiated but resources as such? This would perhaps mean institutionalising organisation rather than trying, yet again, to re-organise an institution. But again, how?

As the distinction between productive and unproductive/reproductive work becomes more and more blurred, embodied art forms (such as dance, choreography and performance) provide knowledgeable resources to understand not only the working conditions of the arts, but labour of life at large. In her recent book Working Aesthetics (2019), Danielle Child suggests that artistic labour can be understood as both unproductive – ‘when the artist freely creates and then sells on work’ – and productive.1

What makes labour productive or not, she argues, is how it is distributed: how it takes place, how it is perceived, and how it is consumed. She writes, ‘The unproductive aspect does not relate to a quality inherent in the type of work being undertaken; it lies in how the labour is purchased and what it produces’.2

After a few years of internal reorganising of collections, archives and canons from art’s dark logistical history, ever since the early colonial times of slave trade, the time has now come for this process of renegotiation to approach the systems in which these structures unavoidably take part. From such a perspective the artworld as a system – with its many difficulties and defects – has, in fact, a network beyond the market that it feeds (and which in turn feeds it). As dramaturge George Blokus outlined in his lecture ‘From Participatory Art to Organizational Art’ at the 2019 edition of Biennale Warszawa, participation today is a given, the question is what to do with it. Time has proven that decades of conferences, published anthologies and curatorial master courses just aren't enough. Yet in recent years other artistic and curatorial collaborations have taken place, as unionising meetings, educational programmes and open-ended performances. These ephemeral practices intend on lasting beyond the actual gathering. More often they don’t – the invited contributors may meet again when attending a similar initiative in another part of the world. How then to make the event last? How to institute the encounter while avoiding the surplus institutional value that precisely erodes the commons?

Bertolt Brecht once called such an organisation umfunktionierung (a functional transformation). I first encountered the term through the writings of Walter Benjamin. In his seminal essay to which I constantly return, ‘The Author as Producer’, he quotes Brecht as suggesting that artworks are ‘no longer to be individual experiences (have the character of works) but … rather, concern the use (transformation) of certain existing institutes and institutions’.3 For Brecht and Benjamin who never experienced the internet, this meant ‘technical innovations’. For Benjamin, the only way to produce umfunktionierung is to take a ‘transdisciplinary’ approach (although he doesn’t actually use that word). He writes:

Intellectual production cannot become politically useful until the separate spheres of competence to which, according to the bourgeois view, the process of intellectual production owes its order, have been surmounted; more precisely, the barriers of competence must be broken down by each of the productive forces they were created to separate, acting in concert. By experiencing his solidarity with the proletariat, the author as producer experiences, directly and simultaneously, his solidarity with certain other producers who, until then, meant little to him.4

In reference to music, Benjamin suggests that the antithesis between performers and listeners, technique and content must be eliminated to institute the encounter between these parts. In fact, he describes the combination of media, such as music and words, as ‘collaborations’; a concert (or a performance, if you will) can be transformed ‘into a political meeting’.5 For Benjamin, the collaboration between linguistic and non-linguistic matter (dance, perhaps) was essential. He calls it a ‘literarization of all living conditions’ melting into one, both genres and class differences; all heated by a temperature that is ‘determined by the state of the class struggle’.6 And as a consequence, the artist(s), spectators, participants, readers alike are encouraged to reflect on the production process of the work in question, or imagine themselves being part of it. According to Benjamin, such reflections equally alter the means of production. He argues that artworks thus gain an organising function, which is above their character as works. In other words, art makes us reflect on how we are working together. This brings us back to the notion of the institution.

As these organisational modes of production not only reconfigure the work (product), but also the working process, Benjamin asks the basic question ‘from where do I write?’ We might exchange ‘writing’ for ‘working’ (so to apply it to all disciplines), ‘from where do we work?’ Independent of material circumstances, the central concern for Benjamin is how the montage (the work)is constructed, i.e. how do we collaborate, ally with one another? We may also reorganise and redistribute each of our means in this way. It is through the virtualities of mediation that we transform our working duties, methods and products into something else. Let’s now bring this question back to the art institution. If, as artist Peter Bürger claimed in 1974, that ‘the institution stopped the avant-garde from really penetrating life’7 today the institution itself penetrates life. From digital identification to border controls, participation is not only an asset but an imperative. An imperative that makes it possible to accelerate subsumption and dispossession. Reactions to this biopolitical institutionalisation of the present can be seen in the political movements on the left and the right and in the arts. According to performance researcher Gigi Argyropoulou, collective counteractions between disciplines ‘challenge the usual agreements, roles and spatial allocation of power [that] can only exist in a precarious process of constant redefinition’8 – precarious montages or umfunktionierung at risk, perhaps?

This brings us back to the question of institutionalised organisation. While an infrastructure is established to ensure fluent, sustained development, over time it too often corrupts this very aim. The paradox of sustainability is as old as the struggle itself, be it political or aesthetic, or both. Over the last decade, the entanglement of politics and aesthetics has been put to the test, from Tahrir Square to Hong Kong, where functional transformation can be seen to be the actual site of the struggle. What can art institutions learn from these actions?

An interesting example can be found in the recently founded digital platform Collection Collective. This is an initiative where the art collection is based on a collective of members donating and co-owning artworks, be they immaterial or material, time-based or immediate. The website functions both as a catalogue of the collection for its members and as an interface between the inventory and the public. Instigating a common ground beyond the capitalisation of the public, they exchange ownership with friendship. In their own words, they ‘believe that true friendship, whose truth was trialled and tested by time, is precisely one such area of subjectivity which resists commodification’.9 What kind of space does such a belief construct?

In a recent interview, British political theorist Jodi Dean underscored the etymological root of ‘comrade’ as deriving from ‘camera’, which in Latin means ‘room, chamber or vault’. In her own reading of the term, a vault is both the production of a space and the support to hold it open. Translated politically, Dean argues thatcomradeship is a relation of supported cover, that is, the expectation of solidarity that those on the same side have of each other. Comrade, then, is a mode of address, figure of political belonging, and carrier of expectations for action. When we call ourselves comrades, we are saying that we are on the same side, united around a common political purpose.10

A comradely aesthetics might be the umfunktionierung of today, where collective processes and authorship are present both within and around the work, but especially in how the work is being made. Such a mindset might allow us to hold a place openbeyond our own needs. To host what is not yet there.